WASHINGTON – An aide to Sen. Amy Klobuchar knew about the controversial abortion language stuck into a bipartisan measure to help victims of human trafficking before her boss voted on it, but failed to say anything, a spokeswoman acknowledged Thursday.
The proposed measure, which had strong backing from members of both parties, stalled in the U.S. Senate last week when Democrats — including Sens. Klobuchar and Al Franken — say they discovered language in the bill that restricts federal funds for abortions and emergency contraception.
Both Klobuchar and Franken voted for the bill in late February on the Judiciary Committee. Franken has said he regrets his vote and believes the Republicans “slipped” in the abortion language, also called a Hyde Amendment. Klobuchar said she didn’t know the language was in the bill when she voted for it.
But on Wednesday her office released a statement, first reported by the Associated Press, acknowledging one of her aides knew about language restricting abortion before the Judiciary Committee voted on the measure.
“A staff member who reviewed the reintroduced bill had seen the Hyde provision in the bill but did not inform the senator. The senator was not aware that the provision was included until last Monday,” e-mailed Klobuchar’s spokeswoman Julia Krahe. “The senator takes responsibility for the work of her office and missing the provision and she is focused on moving forward to find a way to fix the bill and protect victims of trafficking.”
Klobuchar and Franken weren’t the only Democratic senators unaware of the abortion restrictions when they voted in favor of the bill. Scores of staffers to a dozen Democratic senators say they did not see the abortion language in the 68-page bill.
Klobuchar spent almost three hours on the Senate floor on Thursday talking about the human trafficking bill without acknowledging her staff’s blunder, or the political fire over the abortion restrictions. Her voice at times quavering, Klobuchar read chapters of the book “Half the Sky” about women’s problems worldwide — including trafficking — from the Senate floor.
“I believe this great, august body that’s dealt with many large issues in the past, 100 people that I think come to this place with goodwill, should be able to resolve this in some way,” she said Thursday.
The senator declined an interview with the Star Tribune. She has said she hopes to keep the focus on the bill and the victims of human and sex trafficking — not on the political process that has stalled it.
The stalemate has grown so contentious that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened to hold up a Senate vote on the confirmation of the Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch, unless Democrats stop blocking the legislation.
Both Klobuchar and Franken have twice voted to block the human trafficking bill that includes the abortion language.
On Wednesday, Franken said of Klobuchar’s office, “Obviously the staffer should have told the senator. Sometimes people make mistakes. But we on our staff felt that this was slipped in.”
Franken said the abortion language tucked in the bill is “unprecedented.”
“I’m not saying they [Senate Republicans] did it deliberately, but normally we can rely on the authors of the bills to tell us they change something from the last time a bill was introduced.”
The mistake by Klobuchar’s staff member may explain her low-key approach to the fight since it started.
Other Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, have been stomping around the Capitol halls and making floor speeches about Republicans’ sneakiness regarding the abortion language. On the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., admitted she messed up in not seeing the abortion wording, but then beseeched the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to remove the language.
Klobuchar is the lead Democratic sponsor of Cornyn’s bill, which includes the abortion language. Their bill brings together federal and local law enforcement to further crack down on human traffickers. Klobuchar also is the lead author of another bill that is being held up in this fight, which ensures that minors sold for sex aren’t prosecuted as defendants but treated as victims.
Sen. Cornyn said on the floor late Thursday he was open to a compromise that would have the abortion language expire after a year, even though the trafficking bill extends five years. So-called Hyde language is often inserted in annual spending bills with bipartisan support, including military spending measures and bills to fund the federal government.
All of the political volleys have disappointed Lori Stee, policy and education director at Breaking Free, a St. Paul organization that helps about 500 victims of sex trafficking a year in the Twin Cities.
“I just wish politicians would not play politics when women’s lives are at stake and when children’s lives are at stake,” she said Thursday.
Staff writer Jim Spencer contributed to this story.